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Early Cuban Revolution paved road to sexual liberation
Lavender & red, part 91
Published Feb 21, 2007 10:49 PM
The first revolutionary step toward the liberation of sexuality, gender
expression and oppressed sexes in Cuba was the dismantling of the
sex-for-profit industry and interconnected gambling dens and drug-distribution
networks. This concrete, material first act by the Cuban Revolution unshackled
human bodies, desire and gender expression from capitalist commodification,
commercialization and exploitation.
For almost half a millennium the island had been manacled by colonialism,
capitalism and imperialism. The holds of their ships brought enslaved peoples
from Africa. Their advanced weaponry was cocked and trained on the enslaved
laborers. The ideological lash of the Roman Catholic Church sliced to the bone.
White supremacist, racist ideology, patriarchal oppression of women and
state-enforced repression against same-sex love ruled the economic and social
Just as colonialism and imperialism left the island’s fertile soil
cultivated as a single-crop plantation, class enslavement tilled the fields of
When the revolutionary process began, it had to start from there.
Before the 1959 Revolution, the burgeoning sector of the Cuban economy was
Havana’s prostitution industry, booming with Cold War
consumption—the largest in the Caribbean—and the gambling, drugs
and tourism connected to it. U.S. crime syndicate bosses and wealthy Cubans
with connections to Batista’s regime owned the profitable operations.
Researchers Lourdes Arguelles and B. Ruby Rich note that this illegal economy
“employed more than two hundred thousand workers as petty traders, casino
operators, entertainers, servants and prostitutes.” (“Hidden From
Many were homosexual—male and female—and many male homosexuals were
feminine. Crime bosses also exploited tens of thousands of heterosexual women
and men in the prostitution industry. All performed to the sexual whims of the
fathers and scions of the U.S. and Cuban ruling classes.
Cuban citizen, translator and interpreter Leonardo Hechavarría, and Cuban
defender, typographer and gay rights activist Marcel Hatch, sum up that era:
“Before the 1959 Revolution, life for lesbians and gays was one of
extreme isolation and repression, enforced by civil law, augmented by Catholic
dogma. Patriarchal attitudes made lesbians invisible. If discovered,
they’d often suffer sexual abuse, disgrace in the community, and job
“Havana’s gay male underground—some 200,000—was a
purgatory of prostitution to American tourists, domestic servitude, and
constant threats of violence and blackmail.” (“Gays in Cuba, from
the Hollywood School of Falsification,” walterlippmann.com)
Arguelles and Rich explained: “It was just a profitable commodification
of sexual fantasy. For the vast majority, homosexuality made life a shameful
and guilt-ridden experience. Such was gay Havana in the fabled ‘avant la
Reactionaries prey on dislocation
For male homosexuals in Havana, particularly those who were feminine and/or
cross-dressing, social outlets for congregating were limited once this
large-scale illegal economy was shut down.
As a result, Arguelles and Rich explained, this “prolonged the
relationship between the declining underworld and more progressive homosexuals,
locking the two groups together for sheer companionship and sexual
That was truer for Cuban males than females.
The two researchers noted, “Homosexual perspectives on the revolution
could shift according to class interests.”
Middle-class homosexuals whose privileges were threatened by agrarian and urban
reforms banded, they said, with “the remaining veterans of the
underworld” to oppose the revolution.
“Some veterans of the old underworld enclave joined counter-revolutionary
activities or were pushed into them by the CIA,” Arguelles and Rich
reported. “Not a few of the progressive homosexuals became implicated by
default in counter-revolutionary activities and were even jailed.
“Young homosexuals seeking contact with ‘the community’ in
the bars and famous cruising areas of La Rampa were thus introduced to
counter-revolutionary ideology and practice. One example of such a dynamic is
the case of Rolando Cubela, a homosexual student leader who fought in the
revolutionary army but was later enlisted by the CIA to assassinate Fidel
The two researchers concluded, “Homosexual bars and La Rampa cruising
areas were perceived, in some cases correctly, as centers of
counter-revolutionary activities and began to be systematically treated as
Cuban women organize for gains
The overall situation for Cuban women who loved women had its own
Under the triple weight of the patriarchies of colonialism, capitalism and
imperialism, a dynamic women’s movement emerged in Cuba as early as the
1920s and Cuban women won the right to vote and be elected to public office in
After the 1959 seizure of state power, it was Cuban women as a whole who became
the driving force to break the chokehold of centuries-old patriarchal economic
and social organization, and the attitudes about women and femininity it
The Cuban Women’s Federation formed quickly after the Revolution in 1960.
It exerted immeasurably more power because it was a part of the Revolution, not
apart from it.
At a 1966 leadership meeting of the Federation of Cuban Women, President Fidel
Castro observed, “Women’s participation in the Revolution was a
revolution in the revolution, and if we were asked what the most revolutionary
thing that the revolution is doing, we would answer that it is precisely
this—the revolution that is occurring among the women of our
Hechavarría and Hatch stressed, “Following the Revolution, women won
near full equality under the law, including pay equity, the right to child
care, abortion, and military service, among other historic gains, laying the
basis for their higher social and political status.
“This foundation, a first in the Americas, played an important role in
women’s greater independence and sexual freedom, a prerequisite for
homosexual liberation. The Revolution also destroyed the Mafia-controlled U.S.
tourist driven prostitution trade that held many Cuban women and gay men in
Hechavarría and Hatch added, “The Revolution undertook to provide
ample education and employment opportunities for female prostitutes.
“Advances for women in general were naturally extended to lesbians, and
many became among the most ardent defenders of the Revolution.”
Revolutionizing the sexes
Cuban men, as well as women, had been treated as the property of other
men—the patriarchs of property.
Revolutionary Cuban men have carried out their own work to consciously build
the consciousness of a “new man” on the basis of new social
Ché Guevara, Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution as a whole challenged
all Cuban men to examine male consciousness, attitudes and behaviors.
This revolutionary effort, which continues today, aimed to change old ways that
men were taught to interact with women. Like the Revolution itself, this work
is most profoundly meaningful because it is a process, not a single act.
The Revolution challenged the biology-is-destiny “natural order”
ideologies of colonialism, capitalism and imperialism that elevated patriarchs
The Revolution challenged the reactionary biological determinist concept that
men are innately superior and women are naturally submissive.
But genuine economic and social equality for women, and profound change of the
attitudes of men, could only be generated by economic and social reorganization
that could lift the standard of living for all. Imperialism was determined to
thwart and sabotage that work at every moment. U.S. finance capital cinched the
island in an economic noose, and the Pentagon cordoned the island, attacking
overtly and covertly.
As Washington and the Pentagon ratcheted up the pressure on Cuba, and the CIA
having spearheaded the commando invasion at Playa Girón, the entire
island’s population had to be organized and mobilized to meet two huge
tasks in 1965—military defense of the Revolution and harvest of the crop
that sustained economic life.
Everyone—of all sexes, genders and sexualities, from children to
elders—was called up for these two life-and-death tasks.
Inside Cuba, trying to fit many thousands of urban homosexual and/or
transgender males into agricultural work sharpened a social contradiction.
Outside Cuba, propagandistic exploitation of this contradiction led to the
single greatest slander against the Cuban Revolution in the history of the
Next: Vilification of the Cuban Revolution.
Parts 1-90 can be read at workers.org. Look for the lavender and red logo.
Parts 86-90 also explore sexuality, gender and sex on the island before and
after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
E-mail: [email protected]
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